“Few [Iranians] would accept any outsiders waging war on their behalf. They want to grasp freedom with their own hand,” said Scott Peterson, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor who has visited Iran thirty times in the last fifteen years. Peterson was speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in conjunction with the Woodrow Wilson Center, to promote his new book Let the Swords Encircle Me: Behind the Headlines of Iran. He, along with moderators Haleh Esfandiari and Karim Sadjadpour, also discussed diverse topics such as the future of the Green Movement and Iran’s nuclear program.
One of the unique things about visiting Iran versus a country like the former Soviet Union, according to Peterson, is that Iranians are willing, even eager, to share their opinion about political topics with an outsider. The interactions Peterson had with Iranians, from ordinary citizens to political elites, inform his opinions on the issues currently facing Iran and on relations between Iran and the United States. “Iran is a population that is pro-American in many respects.”
Peterson said that he, “do[es] not believe the Green Movement is defeated at all, just removed from street protests.” In fact, he is considerably more upbeat about the movement’s chances than many skeptical analysts because he believes the broad support for President Khatami’s reformist movement in the late 1990s shows the Green Movement is the “majority” in the country. Threatened by the breadth of protests in 2009, the regime is now “consumed with trying to sort out its existence,” and “every single move by the government is for internal political reasons.” However, as Peterson noted, “almost every crucial event that was transformative [in Iran] was unexpected,” and he believes that a change in the Iranian government is possible in the near term. The change would likely “be an evolution, not a revolution.” However, that would not make the change any less dramatic, and the “current regime could go on for ten years, and could also change tomorrow.”
Relations between the United States and Iran were another prominent topic in Peterson’s address. For both sides, “it is so much easier to say no,” and in the past “as soon as something positive happens… an event sets it back.” Furthermore, because the Green Movement caused such a vehement, conservative reaction from the Iranian regime, Peterson believes engagement is “probably not in the cards in the near future.” Still, despite those barriers he is adamant that “nothing can be ruled out in negotiating with Iran or dealing with Iran,” and diplomatic efforts between the two sides was crucial.
Regarding the nuclear program, Peterson believes that the “regime has not made the decision to go for nuclear weapons at the current moment.” At the very least, Iranian elites are interested in being “one screw away” from having a nuclear weapon, while not necessarily committing to building a working bomb, which many within the intelligence community believe would take years to complete. But, Peterson warned, threatening rhetoric from the United States and Israel only increases the likelihood that Iran will go nuclear. “The determining factor is what comes from Washington and Tel Aviv. If you continue to bang the war drum, [Iran] might decide they need a nuke.”